Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 5, 2009

The Genius of Glenn Gould at the Canadian Museum of Civilization


The Genius of Glenn Gould at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, with Sam Cronk (Part One)

The Genius of Glenn Gould at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, with Sam Cronk (Part Two)

What does genius sound like? Does a “genius” have a certain look or distinct behaviour patterns? Is it the “enhancement” of the human mind that is the essence and nature of genius?

I suppose I should really start by examining the whole notion of “genius” but I suspect you and I know how long such a discussion would take and where it might or might not take us. So let me just talk a bit about Glenn Gould, whom many people have referred to as a genius. As a matter of the fact the retrospective on his life, his career, and above all his music, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Canada’s National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau) is titled “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius.”

There is no doubt that Glenn Gould was an extraordinary human being. His talent, his musical legacy, and his complex psyche are well-known around the world — although as Sam Cronk points out in our discussion, Canadians may be experiencing a little bit of Gould amnesia.

Gould was one of Canada’s greatest and most prolific artists. He was a brilliant pianist, composer, writer, performer, recording artist, intellectual, philosopher and — as I was reminded when I toured the exhibit — a funny guy! I suspect many people who admire his great musical accomplishments may be unaware of his talent as a satirist, and I daresay a political commentator. He certainly was and still is a quintessentially “Canadian” personality — there is no doubt about the impact on his life of his growing up here in the land of the Maple Leaf. But as is the case with all musical … um … geniuses … geniii …, Gould was very much an international musical phenomenon.

The exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization is a wonderful walk through the life of this man, and for many Canadians d’un certain âge, it is a musical trip down memory lane. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking Paul Anka tunes here. Rather, this exhibit of the “life and times” of Glenn Gould recalls many places and moments in Canadian society that many people I know recognize and relate to on a very personal level. And in the exhibit, you are within touching distance of the man himself: photographs, artifacts (his practical and “trademark” gloves, his very familiar cap, his famous off-kilter piano chair, his home recording-editing equipment, his notes, his albums, his memorable video clips, his peculiar collection of hotel room keys (from his trips to the musical capitals of the world), and various other Gould memorabilia that are in many ways the Canadian equivalent to Proust’s madeleine.

Glenn Gould was extraordinary. He could read music by the age of three; by five he was composing and performing for family and friends; he took his first examination at the Toronto Conservatory of Music at seven; and he made his professional début as a concert pianist (with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) at the age of 15.

At the age of 22, he made the first recording of what would become his signature work, the Goldberg Variations; and it was this recording that really thrust him onto the world stage.

There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Glenn was a happy kid, although as an adult he was a person who valued solitude and privacy highly; and he behaved at times in ways that conservative Canadians considered … well a bit odd. (In the 1950s and 60s it was hard to find a Canadian who wasn’t a small C conservative) He conducted elephants; he conducted the waves of his beloved Lake Simcoe. He sang along as he played the piano; it was more sotto voce modulations than anything. And if you listen to his recordings you will hear the sounds of Glenn. He was also a telephone “addict.” If a friend or colleague got a call from Glenn, they knew they were in for a long discourse on something of importance. (Be sure to see his long distance phone bill in the exhibit.) I can’t imagine what he would have done with email … or Skype … or MSN Messenger!

What many music lovers around the world found difficult to accept about Gould was his eventual distaste for live performances (he also abhorred competition especially in the arts) and his (obsessive-compulsive?) secondary career as a very astute technical sound engineer and recording artist. In this other reality, he discovered what may have been a whole new musical “space.”

Many in the music world were therefore very disappointed when he abandoned his career as a concert pianist; from thenceforth they could only hear him “from a distance.” But the private space that Glenn Gould put between him and the public was not without intimacy. His subsequent recordings in fact brought his fans even closer to his genius.

Life often ends badly. The day Glenn Gould died in 1982, at the age of 50, many Canadians heard the news on the radio, through friends who telephoned, or in the workplace. His death was a shock; he was far too young and far too accomplished to die at 50.

The exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization is more than just a tribute to Glenn Gould; it is an opportunity — because enough time has passed — to remember a great artist and to reflect on the nature of genius.

Ottawa: An Arts Capital

Canada’s national Capital area, in which our national capital of Ottawa is located, is a must-visit for anyone interested in music, the arts in general, and some of the best museums in this country. As a world-class capital city, Ottawa and Gatineau just across the river (where the Canadian Museum of Civilization is located), is a treasure.


Canadian Museum of Civilization

Tourism Outaouais

Ottawa Tourism

The Glenn Gould website

The Glenn Gould Foundation

More on Glenn Gould from the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

A Museum of Civilization

This museum is in itself a tour de force both architecturally and conceptually. It is renowned for its world-class exhibits and the artistry in which they are presented. There is always something new to discover at this multidimensional public institution.

The “Glenn Gould: The Sounds of Genius” Exhibit

Ethnomusicology and human civilization

I wish to thank Sam Cronk, Curator of Canadian Music at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, for his participation in this project. Sam is an ethnomusicologist, an area of study in which music is explored in a comprehensive cultural context — skills that are always useful for travellers. Applying the theories and study methods common to cultural anthropology, ethnomusicologists demonstrate how music especially is an important ingredient in human culture. As a museum curator, Sam has created a very thought-provoking and multi-layered exhibit that reflects the complex mind and music of Glenn Gould.

See also …

(a)  Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

(b) “Iconoclastic Travel: Applying Brain Science to Travel and Tourism”



  1. “If a friend or colleague got a call from Glenn, they knew they were in for a long discourse on something of importance. (Be sure to see his long distance phone bill in the exhibit.) I can’t imagine what he would have done with email … or Skype … or MSN Messenger!”

    I recently watched the PBS broadcast of the American Masters documentary of Gould’s life. Fortunately, it was filled with interviews with people who knew him well and loved knowing him. I enjoyed your article on his genius and the museum exhibit which celebrates him. I was prompted by your comment which I quoted at the beginning of this message to wonder whether a person who valued solitude and avoided public performance so ceremoniously might not still prefer the use of the telephone as opposed to Skype or email or IM simply because of the nature of telephone communication. Telephoning is such a private way of experiencing discourse while remaining unseen. The others require either being seen (Skype) or sending written exchanges. Written exchanges demand a kind of thoughtful composition and lack of spontaneity that speech does not require. Anyway, it is interesting to contemplate especially since Gould was such an avid and enthusiastic experimenter with recording technology. Whatever he might have done, I agree that he would have been inspired by what today’s media have to offer. It is regrettable that he just missed it.

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